The Atlanta Falcons (11-1) travel to Carolina this weekend for a rivalry game that has "upset" written all over it.
Atlanta avenged its only loss of the season last week, besting New Orleans 23-13 on Thursday Night Football. The decisive victory marked the first time since Week 8––against the hapless Eagles––that the Falcons won by more than six points. In fact, since Week 4, the Falcons have only won by six or more twice––a stat that hardly inspires confidence in a conference leader.
One of the Falcons' close calls came against the Carolina Panthers (3-9), who almost, and probably should have, won in Atlanta earlier this year. In a sequence that was indicative of both teams' seasons, the Falcons used a Ron Rivera coaching gaffe, two late field goals and a 59-yard jump-ball catch by Roddy White to steal the victory.
Although their ships have sailed in opposite directions since that game, the Panthers surely have confidence that they belong on the same field as the Falcons.
With Cam Newton playing his best football of the season and Atlanta looking ahead to a Week 15 showdown with the Giants, the upset isn't as unlikely as it initially appears.
Let's take a look at why it may, or may not, come to fruition.
When: Sunday, Dec. 9th, 1 p.m. ET
Where: Bank of America Stadium, Charlotte, NC
TV: FOX (check local listings)
Live Stream: NFL Sunday Ticket
Spread: Atlanta -3.5 (via VegasInsider.com )
Both teams have played a number of close games this season. The drastic difference in their records is a testament to how they've handled––or in Ron Rivera's case, bungled––the fourth quarter.
The Panthers are 0-7 in games decided by six points or less, but there's a silver lining in Carolina. Check out this tasty stat delivered by Aaron Schatz––the mastermind behind FootballOutsiders.com––on the B.S. Report podcast:
From 1990 to 2011, there were seven different teams that were 0-5, or worse, in less-than-a-touchdown games through Week 13. In the last four weeks, those same teams were 8-2 in less-than-a-touchdown games.
As Schatz himself goes on to say, "That's not just regression towards the mean..."
History tells us this game will be close, and it also says Carolina has a good chance to win––especially with Atlanta looking ahead to a game with the Giants next week. Even if they can't pull off the upset, they're on the right side of the key number three.
Take the points, and take them with confidence.
Over/Under: 48.0 (via VegasInsider.com )
This is a tough one. The two teams combined for 58 points in the first meeting, but that took place in a dome. It also took place when the Falcons' offense was firing on all cylinders.
In truth, both of these teams are similar in their mediocre efficiency rating––on both sides of the ball. Football Outsiders ranks the Falcons 16th and 13th in offense and defense DVOA; Carolina checks in at 15th and 14.
Since Week 11, Carolina and Atlanta have combined to play five games that went under the total of 48, and only one game (Carolina 30, Philadelphia 22) that went over it.
I'd stay away. But if I had to bet, my money would be on the under.
Atlanta Falcons Injury Report (via USA Today—as of 12/6/12)
|S Charles Mitchell||Calf||Probable|
|S William Moore||Hamstring||Questionable|
|RB Michael Turner||Elbow||Questionable|
|CB Asante Samuel||Shoulder||Questionable|
|DT Peria Jerry||Quadricep||Questionable|
Carolina Panthers Injury Report (via USA Today—as of 12/6/12)
|LB James Anderson||Back||Questionable|
|DT Dwan Edwards||Wrist||Questionable|
|S Charles Godfrey||Back||Questionable|
|TE Greg Olsen||Back||Questionable|
|WR Brandon LaFell||Foot||Questionable|
|RB Jonathan Stewart||Ankle||Questionable|
Fantasy Big Plays
Atlanta Falcons: RB Michael Turner
The Falcons passed 40 times––to only 19 rushes––in the teams' first meeting. But a lot of that had to do with the fourth-quarter lead they spotted Carolina and some had to do with how hot their passing game was at that early-season juncture.
Atlanta has gotten more and more balanced as the season has progressed, and Turner is coming off a strong performance against New Orleans. Plus, with the Falcons' red-zone pass offense continuing to struggle, he's found pay dirt in three consecutive games.
Carolina boasts a surprisingly good pass defense but are predictably permeable against the run. Turner averaged a season-high 7.9 yards per carry in the first game with Carolina, surpassing 100 yards on only 13 rushes.
Turner's been limited in practice this week, but he's expected to play and get a full workload. If that's the case, he should be in all fantasy lineups.
Carolina Panthers: TE Greg Olsen
Tight ends continue to be a crapshoot in fantasy football this season, but Olsen is a relatively safe bet this weekend.
He caught six passes for 89 yards and a touchdown in the teams' first meeting, consistently managing to find holes in the Falcons' secondary. And even though had a slow game against the Chiefs last week, he did make the most of his one catch––a 47-yard touchdown.
Atlanta's defense ranks sixth in the league against opposing No. 1 receivers, second against opposing No. 2 receivers but only 15th against opposing tight ends (h/t Football Outsiders).
Like Turner (listed above), Olsen is officially listed as questionable, but he's strongly expected to play. He could see double-digit targets if he does.
Key to Victory
Would anyone be surprised if Atlanta was a complete no-show on Sunday? Seriously, raise your hand if you would be.
Atlanta clinched the NFC South last week and have a 2.5-game buffer over the Niners for home-field advantage. What's more, they have a season-defining statement game coming up with the Giants next weekend.
Carolina doesn't have much to play for either, but a chance to avenge a heartbreaking early-season loss should get them out of bed.
Let's see if the Falcons follow suit.
The Panthers haven't been nearly as bad as their record; Football Outsiders actually ranks them the 18th-best team in football.
Atlanta has squeaked by inferior opponents one too many times this season. Eventually, their insouciance will bite them in the butt.
Expect Carolina to go up early, blow the lead late, then seal the game on the strength of a signature performance from Cam Newton.
Predicted Score: Carolina 24, Atlanta 17